Success Is the Ability to Make Decisions

Many small businesses suffer from analysis paralysis – the practice of waiting for the data to definitively reveal the correct path. We review and research, and at each juncture one more piece of information comes forth that causes us to postpone the final choice a little longer. How to stop the cycle:

Seth Godin is on my blog reading list for a number of reasons. He is sometimes insightful, sometimes brief, and occasionally both. Here’s one of his recent entries we can all build from:

I need more time

from Seth’s Blog by Seth Godin

First rule of decision making: More time does not create better decisions.

In fact, it usually decreases the quality of the decision.

More information may help. More time without more information just creates anxiety, not insight.

Deciding now frees up your most valuable asset, time, so you can go work on something else. What happens if, starting today, you make every decision as soon as you have a reasonable amount of data?

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Neil Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Many small businesses suffer from analysis paralysis – the practice of waiting for the data to definitively reveal the correct path. We review and research, and at each juncture one more piece of information comes forth that causes us to postpone the final choice a little longer. We wait for the new product to roll out, then wait to see if it’s successful, then wait again to see if there’s a better alternative, then table the whole project because a key employee decided to move on (probably to find a company that could make a decision!).

It is always difficult to debate this process with its owners. Their logic is valid “I am making the best decision available.” Not deciding is a choice, right? They are waiting for something to tip the scales, which usually comes too late to gain any real advantage for making that choice.

How do you stop the cycle of indecision and endless review of choices? Most folks consider decisions to be final. There’s no turning back. In general it is hard to reverse a decision (besides, that would require another decision!), but we can make a series of interim choices. Choosing between an interim decision and waiting for a final choice is much more palpable to the risk-averse decision maker. Employees often choose to endorse this path because they know that the interim decision will help tip the scales in favor of the final choice. Risk-averse managers who have caught on to this technique will become even more intractable when they sense this form of conspiracy.

The solution to this impasse often evolves into a Strategic Planning exercise. Sometimes the medicine is worse than the illness! Strategy sessions are enjoyed by the few folks who like to talk about possibilities but not decide. They are dreaded by those who feel their every waking hour should be spent on tactical progress. A good strategy session should provide both sides with agreed upon long term goals, an unique approach to get there, and a series of filters that can be used to evaluate the available choices.

So what kind of filters could you develop from a strategy session?

  1. Why are we in business? It’s probably to make money (or build value). Is it for the short term or long term? Who gets the money? When? Or if you are non-profit (or very altruistic) you may have a social or political goal.
  2. How do we make money at it? Many folks are unclear about how their companies make money. Buy low, sell high? Buy what? Sell what? Service or product? Both?
  3. Who are our customers? Hopefully people who will help you make money. What do they look like? Where do you find them? What are they looking for?
  4. What are our values? How far are we willing to go? What are our constraints? What is it like to do business with us?
  5. What is our unique approach to win market share? The biggest question of all, but the answer cannot countermand the previous four points.

Armed with these filters, you better evaluate choices. Does the idea fit inside the answers to the above questions? Given two choices, does one fit better? If so, this is not the final analysis, but it does have the ability to reduce the number of decisions that are open to debate. And, to Seth Godin’s point, it will help us make faster decisions by giving us a means to eliminate unworthy debates.

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